There was an equal air of formality and familiarity last night at the Kentucky Theatre.
That a string quartet greeted the sold-out audience — an ensemble that grew to five string players (six, if you count electric bass) when it backed up host Michael Johnathon on a show-opening version of the folk meditation Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream — signaled this wasn't the typical pageantry for a Monday taping of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour. Neither was the fact that several on air/camera staff for this "celebration of grass roots music" were decked out in tuxedos.
But between the string flings, Judge Ray Corns warmed up the crowd with a one-liner he has delivered so often that it has become a ritualistic part of the program. "As Elizabeth Taylor said to each one of her husbands..." he began. "I won't keep you long," answered the crowd. All that was missing was the rim shot.
In essence, it was business as usual last night for WoodSongs. But the occasion was clearly anything but routine. The program celebrated its 500th taping, a milestone well worthy of the evening's modestly celebratory feel.
Johnathon used the occasion to fill in the crowd on the show's latest multi-media adventures, likely scheduled broadcasts of the program in New York and New Jersey cinemas this fall and the fact that the show's weekly listening audience is now more than 2 million.
And, yes, there was a legion of sponsors to thank and a few high-profile pals in the audience to acknowledge, including Lexington Mayor Jim Newberry. But the program's focus remained on music. In the case of program 500, the attention was on one guest, veteran folk singer Richie Havens.
A renowned songwriter and interpreter, Havens remains best known for his festival-opening appearance at Woodstock 39 summers ago. But in listening to Havens sing Monday night in his deep, regally raspy voice with open guitar tunings that revealed a richly percussive feel, little has changed.
Some of the vocal creases have been ironed out, giving Havens a more sage-like singing quality. You heard it in original works such as The Key and the war requiem Say It Isn't So, both tunes from his new Nobody Left to Crown album. But the best evidence as to how rustically Havens' music has aged surfaced with the evening's most familiar song.
Havens' recorded a hit version of the George Harrison signature tune Here Comes the Sun more than 37 years ago. While last night's version benefited from a backup duo that added colors of steel guitar and cello, the songs seemed altogether lighter than the rugged one Havens took to the airwaves.
Maybe it was the fact that Harrison has been gone for nearly seven years. Maybe it was that the spiritual cast Havens brings to the song has broadened. Regardless, it was a gem of a performance. Tacking on The Beatles' Abbey Road vignette The End as a coda made the song seem nothing short of enlightened.
By the end of the night, Havens was officially dubbed a Kentucky Colonel and, in a proclamation by Gov. Steve Beshear, Monday became "WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour Day."
But to enforce the program's musical fortitude, Havens raised the storm flags to perform Bob Dylan's Maggie's Farm with a verse of The Who's Won't Get Fooled Again as an encore medley. The voice was still warm and fatherly. The intent, though, clearly did what all great folk music strives to achieve: it spoke from the heart and to the times.